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Sermon blog: the return of the King

March 17, 2018

Matthew 24:36-51 

The title of our talk this evening is “The return of the King”.

King Jesus is coming back!

My sense is that this is something we talk about less in our churches these days.

I wonder are we even slightly embarrassed to talk about it?

I think today we tend to talk more than we used to about living as Christians in the here and now. And it’s quite right that we should do.

The church I grew up in had the weekly 6.30 pm Gospel Meeting, where Jesus coming again was frequently a major feature. Indeed we were often told that Jesus could come back by 7.30!

In the early part of this chapter Jesus is talking to his disciples about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, but he looks beyond that to the signs of the end of the age. The day when he, the king will return.

“Heaven and earth will pass away”, he says in verse 35.

So when is this all going to happen? Could the disciples mark the date and time down in their calendars?

Date and time?

Jesus is clear and to the point:

“No one knows”.

The angels don’t know. They are not in on the secret.

The son doesn’t know. Jesus doesn’t have the date.

Only God the Father knows.

Woah!

Let me rewind that a bit!

“Nor the Son”.

Do you hear it?

Jesus, the Son of God, the word through whom everything was created, says to his disciples:

“I don’t know when I’m coming back. I’m still waiting for instructions”.

Just think about that for a moment.

Jesus doesn’t know? Of course he knows.

That’s not possible.

Jesus is God isn’t he?

God knows everything.

But Jesus says “No one knows.

Not even me.

Only God the father”.

Is Jesus God?

Absolutely.

Did he cease to be God when he became a man?

Absolutely not.

He was man and God all at once.

But something had changed. In the words of the worship song he had “laid aside his majesty”. He had become one of us and in so doing had given up much of what was rightfully his.

Even the knowledge of God’s plan for this world’s future, it seems.

Now as he is sitting at the right hand of God the Father one would think surely he knows, but back then:

“Only the Father knows”.

Which begs a question:

If that is true then why have so many people, even so many Christians spent so much time and energy trying to work out the date and time of Jesus’ return, when it is something that men and women cannot know?

It has been said that “speculation on dates is inappropriate, indeed blasphemous.”

But many have tried.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted Jesus’ return in 1914. When he did not show up, rather than admit they were wrong, they argued that he had returned but in a more secret and mysterious way!

Christians such as Darby and Scofield set out detailed timetables.

Popular writers like Hal Lindsay in the 1970’s made predictions.

Some predicted the return of Jesus and the end of the world as we ticked over into this millennium.

But Jesus’ words seem plain enough surely. We cannot know.

Beware anyone who says he’s got inside knowledge!

In verse 37 Jesus compares the times leading up to his return with the time leading up to Noah’s flood. To a large extent, though we will see perhaps not entirely, these are both unexpected events.

People taken by surprise.

As in the days of Noah – life goes on. Eating, drinking, marrying.

It’s business as usual.

People either oblivious to the impending danger or refusing to listen to warnings. Peter describes Noah as a preacher in his second letter.

Was it that no one knew? Or was it that they didn’t listen to the preacher?

So today surely there is a mixture of those who have not heard and those who have rejected the good news of Jesus.

Noah’s flood was of course not the friendly children’s bible story we often portray it as. It was a calamity.

An act of judgement against the wickedness that God saw on the earth.

So the second coming of Jesus is presented as a time of judgement, a time to be feared. A disaster to avoid.

And yet there is another side.

Just as the ark brought deliverance to Noah and his family, so Jesus’ return is also to bring deliverance to his followers here on earth.

Only recently a friend in our house group was saying how she had become a Christian in the 1970’s. Largely out of fear. Out of what would happen to her when Jesus returned. And my recollection of much of the preaching I remember from those days was that it was negative and frightening.

Jesus’ return was often presented as a disaster rather than something that could be of great joy.

Of course there is a right place for warning, but surely the message of Jesus is first and foremost a positive one of hope and forgiveness and new life.

It bothers me that as I look at myself that I do not anticipate and look forward to the return of Jesus as much as I should.

In recent years I have developed a theory that so much of that gospel preaching of my youth was about judgement at Jesus’ return, that I still often see his return as something to fear.

I’ll even admit to having those episodes in Sainsbury’s where I’m walking up and down every aisle, with my wife Bev apparently nowhere to be seen and wondering if she has been taken and I have been left behind. If only I’d known she was in the changing room!

We Christians have reason for wonderful unbreakable hope in the return of Jesus to make everything right, and an eternity in his presence.

Our friend talked about how her friends would talk to her about passages such as the one we have read tonight.

Jesus talks about 2 men in verse 41, 2 women in verse 42. On the face of it they look very similar. Colleagues and friends.

But there is a huge difference when Jesus returns.

One man is taken, one left.

One woman is taken, one left.

This was indeed the sort of passage that inspired Christians in the 1960’s and 1970’s particularly.

An American singer Larry Norman sang “I wish we’d all been ready”, with the lines:

“A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head. He’s gone. Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still”.

Certainly as we’ll see the title of the song was bang on.

An English duo Malcolm & Alwyn had a song Tomorrow’s News:

“Have you seen the paper? Have you read the news? 200 million disappear and the whole world is confused. The churches are empty now, no one goes anymore. The remains of the Bibles lay scattered on the floor. Remember Mr Tomlinson whom everybody knew. He vanished from his home last week – he was one of the chosen few”.

Christians made Films such as “Thief in the night”.

More recently the “Left behind” series of books have been Christian bestsellers and have been made into films.

The picture is of people disappearing, airline pilots being whisked away in mid-flight, and the whole world wondering where they have gone.

Is Jesus simply illustrating the difference that his return will make between friends and colleagues and neighbours, or is he literally saying that his return will be a secret?

I’m not so sure. In verse 27 of this chapter Jesus has said, “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”.

Jesus’ return I believe is going to light up the sky. The greatest spectacle of all. No one will miss what is happening.

Could it be as secret as the Jehovah’s Witnesses suggest?

Michael Green says “No, it will be the most public event in all history. It will be impossible to miss it, for it will be like sheet lightning from one side of the sky to the other.”

Elsewhere we read of angels, trumpets and loud voices.

But Jesus seems to be saying to us that for some that will be a spectacle that brings great joy, but for others it will be a day to fear.His return will divide people.

As Jesus later left this world, the disciples were told to expect a physical, visible return. “ ‘Men of Galilee,’ [the angels] said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” Acts 1:11.

In Revelation chapter 1, John promises “Every eye will see him”.

So the word from Jesus is to be prepared for that day when he returns.

“Keep watch. You can be sure I’m coming back. Even if we don’t know when.”

So how do we keep watch?

No doubt those early disciples thought that Jesus would come back in their life time.

Many generations have thought since.

Still we wait. How do we wait?

Jesus looks to the idea of theft again. If the householder knew the thief was coming he wouldn’t go to sleep. He’d be ready for him. His house would be secure.

Nowadays we would spend money to get an alarm installed in the house so we can thwart the burglar and sleep soundly at the same time.

But that is dealing with a potential risk. Jesus is talking about a certain event. Even more so all of us need to be ready.

As Jesus looks at how we prepare ourselves he tells another story, the story of a faithful and wise servant. The challenge is this. When the master returns, what will he find his servant doing?

By analogy when Jesus returns what will he find us doing?

In the generation before mine this was often issued with a warning to sober living.

“What will you do if Jesus comes back and finds you in the cinema or in the dance hall?”

What a calamity! Of course the short answer is that we probably won’t ask Jesus to hold on so we can see the end of the film.

Jesus has already reminded us hasn’t he, that life goes on as normal in the days leading up to his return. Even in leisure time!

I believe it’s not so much about how we spend a particular evening but how we spend our lives.

The picture is of a servant who gets on with his work, as against a servant who gets complacent and ill-treats his colleagues.

The one will be rewarded. The other faces a surprisingly dramatic(and violent) end.

Michael Green comments about anticipating Jesus’ return:

“Jesus did not tell us to get out our calculators and polish our crystal balls, but to live a holy life in preparation for meeting him”.

Peter in his second letter recognises that as we preach the return of Jesus we will face a cynical response, just as perhaps Noah had experienced in his day:

“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this “coming” he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.”

The message of Jesus’ return though is one that we need to preach.

Paul also reminded the Christians in Thessalonica of how they should live, given that the time is not known:

“Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.” 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4.

As I have been preparing this, our daughter Becky was getting ready to deliver our first grandchild. Sophia was 8 days late. It’s tempting to become impatient and think this is never going to happen. But it is a certain event. There have been plenty of signs and just the shape and size of Becky’s tummy told you that baby was coming, quite apart from all the pain!

She and her husband had been preparing for months, decorating, buying all the right bedding and clothes, learning what to expect in the labour ward. Nothing more needed to be done. The hospital bag was packed and when the labour pains came they were off to hospital.

Our role was to sit by the phone for what seemed like an age!

It was a certain event and they were prepared.

Peter challenges his readers further:

“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

Of course there will always be discussions about these things.

Some will argue that the day that Jesus returns is a fixed day in history. God has got the date and time written down.

Others have suggested it is a moveable date based on certain circumstances. Perhaps they look at Peter’s hint about how we can “speed its coming” or the need for the world to be evangelised first.

The inference from the story is that we need to be serving God faithfully, doing the work that God calls each of us to do. Enduring the hardship that might come our way.

For those of us who know him and love him, that will be a day to look forward to.

It will be an end to history as we know it. A time for good to be shown to have triumphed over evil. Visibly seeing the victory that Jesus won on the cross.

A time of restoration. For the creation of a new heaven and new earth.For everything to be put right. For tears to be wiped away. The final breaking in of the kingdom of God.

Yes there will be judgement. People will be divided as Jesus said.

The Nicene creed reminds us that “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.

There will be judgement but we need not fear that if we know Jesus as our saviour, knowing that his grace has covered all our sins.

The question is do you know him? Have you trusted your life into Jesus’ hands?

We can know with the writer to the Hebrews:

“Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him”. Hebrews 9:28.

Let’s be waiting.

Jesus will fulfil his promise:

“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am”. John 14:3.

However we view these words of Jesus. One thing is evident. Jesus’ return is 2000 years nearer than it was when he spoke these words. It might not be in our lifetime, but it just might be.

It is a reminder to us to sort out our priorities, to watch the signs, and to live holy lives that attra others to see Jesus for who he is. To encourage as many as possible to be ready…

…for the return of the King.

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